There's a story that, on March 8th 1890, Bram Stoker, the Dublin-born author of Dracula, contracted food poisoning from a dressed crab in a fashionable London restaurant. The ensuing vivid nightmare about blood-sucking creatures was direct inspiration for his Gothic Count. If that dream had had a soundtrack, then it could have been provided by THE HAAR, an Anglo-Irish four piece in Bristol to celebrate St Patrick's Day.
It is entirely fitting that their new album is called Where Old Ghosts Meet because this evening, in this packed church, ghosts are all around us. The Haar take traditional Irish songs, songs that we all know, and paint them in different, darker, scarier colours. This is not a dyed-green-Guinness-and-a-bit-o'-craic Ireland, this is the coast of Connemara Ireland, this is watching the fog roll in around The Skellig Islands Ireland. This is devastatingly beautiful and more than a little intense.
Part of that intensity comes from Molly Donnery and her extraordinarily evocative voice. Where so many of the songs feature a heavy death toll, Donnery provides both a pin-drop vulnerability and the quiet fury of the wronged. There are moments, particularly on Craigie Hill and Two Sisters, where she sounds a tiny bit like Cara Dillon but with all of the emotion and rough edges still, very much, intact. It's also quite something to cover a Mary Black song - Anachie Gordon in this case - and utterly do it justice.
The other provider of intensity is Cormac Byrne. It's not that often you watch a band and can't drag yourself away from the bodhrán player, but Byrne is remarkable. He literally provides the heartbeat around which everything else can work. It's the sound that you can hear pulsing through you at 3 o'clock on a panicked morning. You notice it most on She Moved Through The Fair where this song stops being all All About Eve wafty-ness and, instead, it's a hypnotic swirl. Donnery's voice and Byrne's bodhrán overwhelming the senses, creating a fair with too many people, too many sensations, too much to see.
It seems almost clichéd to expect to hear The Wild Rover on St Patrick's Day and, surely, it was played a million times up and down the country tonight. One thing's for sure though, none of those versions sound like The Haar's. Theirs is slowed to a lament and is as dark as Dracula's cape. The horror of the song is amped up with a new verse where the young man is murdered by the landlady. It is terrifying. In a very good way.
Equally disconcerting is Whiskey In The Jar. Anyone expecting a rousing romp in the Thin Lizzy mold might have to have a bit of a re-think because this one is very sinister indeed. Adam Summerhayes, on fiddle, has been adding scarily brilliant textures all night and it is here that those textures take on a blood-red hue. At turns sustaining a solitary high note, then plunging into a breakneck pace, as though being chased by the very devil himself. All the while he is ably assisted by Murray Grainger (his bandmate in The Ciderhouse Rebellion) on accordion, the two of them stretching the canvas for the band to paint upon.
There were no painful, Oirish stereotypes tonight, instead this was a St Patrick's night to remember. It was thinking-person's music, not drinking-person's music.
Before all of that intensity, SOLARFERENCE brought their own brand of theatricality. A duo hailing from Bristol and Devon, Nic Janaway and Sarah Owen are usually found mixing genres with a heap of clever electronics. Here, though, they play things straight and their voices, and songs, shine. Owen's voice, in particular, is lovely and her background in sonic art is telling. On Milder and Mulder the pair weave two songs together - one English, one Welsh - and the effect is quite magical.
St Patrick's night at Downend Folk & Roots was absolutely everything that you'd dream of. Simply beautiful music and no nightmares.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
Our usual "third Friday of the month" concert happens to fall on St Patrick’s Day this year, so the evening will have a distinctly Irish theme for an event that will also be live-streamed in partnership with LIVE TO YOUR LIVING ROOM.
Innovative Anglo-Irish quartet THE HAAR matches the fresh talent of traditional Irish singer Molly Donnery with three of the most exciting instrumentalists on the folk and traditional music circuit: Cormac Byrne (Uiscedwr, Seth Lakeman), Adam Summerhayes and Murray Grainger (The Ciderhouse Rebellion, Words of a Fiddler’s Daughter). The band’s music is characterised by ‘live reactive composition’ – an improvised space from which Molly’s pure and unadulterated vocals can emerge, spontaneous and never to be repeated in exactly the same way.
Their eponymous debut was heralded as "a splendid balance of swirling instrumental magic and beautifully sung narratives” by Folk Radio UK, and their new album Where Old Ghosts Meet brings more magic from a collection of songs that grew from a desire to explore old favourites, to dig into traditional Irish gems for new inspiration and insights and intuitively follow the spark of new ideas.
This is music that is not afraid to transcend borders. Born of the traditional musics that all members have grown up with and absorbed, it is unapologetic in pushing at the edges in order to create the band’s own unique and compelling sound.
Joining The Haar on the bill will be award-winning duo SOLARFERENCE. Since 2008 Nic Janaway & Sarah Owen have been developing a genre-defying mix of traditional folk and live electronics - the duo have spent a couple of years peeling back the electronic layers to acoustically explore a strong new collection of original & traditional songs. Nic, based in Bristol, is a songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and sound designer. Sarah is a versatile vocalist from East Devon with a background in sonic art and composition. Solarference perform with an intense live energy, with voice and harmony at the heart of the music.
Tickets for the concert, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 17 March 2023, are available online HERE and from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend (cash only). They are priced at £14 each in advance or £16 on the door. Doors open at 7.30pm and the entertainment starts around 7.45pm. Tickets for the online stream are available HERE, with a range of prices available.
In the venue, there will be a bar, stocking cider, soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and locally-brewed real ale from locally-based HOP UNION BREWERY. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own glass/mug/tankard, as well as reusable bottles for water, as part of the drive to be more environmentally aware. There is a 50p discount for those that do. There will also be sweet treats available at the bar courtesy of Radstock-based THE GREAT CAKE COMPANY, as well as a prize draw, which helps to fund the support artists for each concert. Refreshments for the online version are down to you!
TOM MOORE & ARCHIE MOSS are artists. They're magicians. They're conjurers. They might hold a viola (Moore) and an accordion (Moss) but they could just as easily use paints, film or the supernatural to create their world. This is folk music by way of black & white European cinema, by way of haunting, fragmented sketching.
Do you know that feeling just before a storm breaks? The prelude, the lull, the moment when the atmosphere changes, when the world holds its breath. That moment when you know something is about to happen but you're not sure when. The whole of this extraordinary set from these two incredible musicians feels like that. Giga is, almost certainly, a jig... but it's a jig that never allows you to dance. It builds and breaks and slows and builds again but it never permits you to relax into the tune. This gives it incredible power even as it constantly wrong foots you. It's dance music that's impossible to dance to.
Windmill Hill has an experimental sparse-ness and segues into Nina's Tune. It's almost unbearably tense as disjointed movements pile up next to one another, each one more ghostly than the last, each one threatening to spill out into something smooth and reassuring. It almost never does though. Instead, it feels as though a noir-ish Scandinavian dream is slipping through your fingers.
Moore's viola is echoed and looped - at times you'd swear that there are two, three or four of his instrument on stage - and on Universeum he helps a sweeping, star-gazing soundtrack unfold. The closest comparison is probably Lau and all of their odd, gauzy cine-scapes and, like Lau, these are tunes that, ideally, could use some films to help them coalesce.
Moss adds a droning base with his accordion, setting up a meniscus that the tunes skip across, like a dragonfly or a hummingbird. The viola hovers over things, threatening to break the surface but instead, landing, pausing and flying off again. On Omens, from the latest album Spectres, it's almost a relief when the thin base layer is, eventually, broken and the stompbox drives a tune but, even then, the threatened deluge fails to materialise. Safety is so close but never arrives.
Pigeon City/Trapdoors brings the evening to a close. It started life as a field recording on the late-night streets of Bristol but is now a disquieting, complex, hypnotic meditation on isolation, urban nature and darkness. It is startling, intricate and devastatingly beautiful. This is music for the head, not for the feet.
And then, after all of the experimentation, all of the pretty snatches, all of the tantalising moments, Moore and Moss play a simple, beautiful, acoustic folk tune - no electronics, no tension. The 7th of October almost says "yeah, so, we could do this stuff all day, do it better than anyone else, but we can do that other stuff too". The "other stuff" might be more difficult, might be disconcerting, might be uncomfortable but it's deeply rewarding.
MIKE WEAVER starts the evening in a much more comfortable way. His songs are soaked in nostalgia; he constantly reminds us of his age, his childhood, the people he used to know, the pubs he used to love and stories from before we were all born. His songs are lovely, his voice honest and his heart is, very much, in the right place. If he, unashamedly, looks back then Moore and Moss are resolutely looking forward.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
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